Foreign Policy Blogs

The duty to criticize

Human Rights Watch has landed back in the news, though not in the way that it likes.  For the last few months the organization has endured controversy over its coverage and position on Israel.  First, news broke in July of a fundraising trip that Human Rights Watch undertook to Saudi Arabia where the representatives allegedly highlighted their criticism of Israel as a reason why wealthy Saudis should help fund the organization.  Then in September is was revealed that the organization’s senior military expert collected war memorability, specifically Nazi memorabilia.  Now Robert Bernstein, the founder of Human Rights Watch, is blasting the organization from the op-ed pages of The New York Times and accusing it of anti-Israel bias, or more specifically losing “critical perspective” when it comes to Israel.   

The bulk of Bernstein’s argument is that as a democratic society, Israel should not be subjected to the same treatment as its non-democratic neighbors.  By having the institutions that define a democratic society — a free press, regular multi-party elections, and a vigorous academia — such societies should not be the focus of human rights organizations.  This is because there is a difference between “open” and “closed” societies:

At Human Rights Watch, we always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them – through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform.


That is why we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights. We wanted to prevent the Soviet Union and its followers from playing a moral equivalence game with the West and to encourage liberalization by drawing attention to dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and those in the Soviet gulag – and the millions in China’s laogai, or labor camps.

 This reasoning fits the purpose that Human Rights Watch first had when it started as Helsinki Watch in the 1970s.  Back then the world was divided by the Cold War and a monumental battle between democratic capitalism and communism.  At the time it was easy to draw clear lines between human rights protectors and human rights abusers.  The problem is that in reality, players on both sides of that particular battle often played dirty.  The truth of this has emerged out into the open in the twenty years since the Cold War ended, but it is clear that the lessons of those years have not been fully learned.  

Bernstein is correct in that there is a difference between countries such as Denmark and Burma.  But if human rights are universal, then there cannot be a line between who is worthy or scrutiny for their actions and those who are not.  Whether it is political oppression in Zimbabwe, xenophobia in Europe, torture in the United States, or excessive civilian casualties on the part of Israel in Lebanon and Gaza, all constitute human rights abuses and all should be held accountable by domestic and international human rights organizations.  

Israel is an issue that stirs the passions of many, and it will inevitably continue to do so.  In the process, many on both sides of the debate lose perspective about what it is we are talking about.  Although Bernstein lauds the existence of an open society in Israel, part of an open society is the ability of civil society to criticize government action; at the same time, Israel does not act within a vacuum and there are serious issues that need to be addressed on the Palestinian side as well.  It is possible to criticize Israeli action and not be anti-Israel, just as it is possible to acknowledge that Islamic extremism and the violence it promotes is a serious problem without being an Islamiphobic.  In such situations, sticking to clear lines often does more harm than good, and as Scott MacLeod points out, could harm the peace process rather than promote it, which will inevitably lead to even more human rights abuses.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa